A German Bible – with pictures

A leaf from Biblia Germania (The Bible in German), printed by Anton Koberger in Nuremberg in 1483 (334 x 228 mm)

For mediaeval travellers journeying between Northern Europe and Italy, the Bavarian city of Nuremberg was an important staging-post, linked by river to the Rhine and notable for science, arts – and printing. In particular it was famed for the production of illustrated books.

Printed books containing pictures had begun to appear within a decade of the publication of the Gutenberg Bible. The first may well have been produced as early as 1461 by a printer, Albrecht Pfister, active not in Nuremberg but in the nearby city of Bamberg. But it is Anton Koberger of Nuremberg who is remembered as the most ambitious printer and publisher of illustrated books of the 15th century.

With the colour filtered out, this detail from the woodcut shows how the use of hatching can produce the effect of shades of grey from nothing more than black ink on white paper.

Unlike the printing of text, which required many technical innovations to bring it to perfection, the technology for printing pictures from woodblocks was already in existence, and only needed to be adapted. Text printing used pieces of metal type with the raised letters on the top, while pictures required a woodblock of the same height as the type with the picture carved in relief on its top surface. Type and woodblock could then be inked and printed together on the same press.

This leaf comes from a Bible produced by Koberger in Nuremberg in 1483. The one-third-page woodcut marks the start of the Book of Psalms. It shows the psalmist David playing on his harp while seated in some style on a cushioned throne which bears his name. A river scene with castle and windmill appears beyond, while the Holy Spirit presides overhead. As was usual at the time the artist has set the scene in his own time and place, rather than attempting to recreate ancient Israel. (But what is the circular object apparently leaning against the castle wall? If it is a millstone it is an unusually large one.)

The earliest woodcut illustrations had been simple outline drawings, but by the time this leaf was printed the technique of hatching had been developed for depicting light and shade. Some copies of this Bible were sold uncoloured; others, like this one, have contemporary hand-colouring which may have been done in Koberger’s own workshop.

The ‘David’ woodcut is one of 109 in the complete Bible. The blocks from which they were printed had been acquired by Koberger from a printer in Cologne who had used them in another edition of the Bible a few years earlier. The anonymous artist who originally created these blocks is known simply as ‘The Master of the Cologne Bibles’.

This is the earliest Bible leaf in my collection in any language other than Latin – in this case High German. Some 1000-1500 copies of this version were printed on the presses in Koberger’s workshop, using a typeface specially commissioned for this edition. The enormous initials and other red markings were probably also added by hand in Koberger’s workshop, and in most cases the small printed guide letters are still visible. The overall appearance was no doubt designed to make this handsome Bible a must-have possession not just for clerics but for the wealthier literate private citizens of Nuremberg and beyond. Some 150 copies survive to this day.